Posted by: episystechpubs | September 21, 2021

Editor’s Corner: Common English words from indigenous American languages

When I go up to the Pacific Northwest, I love seeing all of the place names change from Spanish (in California) to the indigenous names I grew up with, such as Tlingit, Tukwila, Muckleshoot, and Klickitat. I know I’ve covered different words we have adopted into English from indigenous languages, but this article I found goes deeper than just a list of words. The article, from Mental Floss, provides some etymologies, history, a little myth-busting, and some very interesting information. (KC – I cut the list short, but the link above will take you to all 11.)

11 Common English Words from Native American Languages

You’re probably well aware that tepee, totem, and toboggan are all Native American names for familiar objects, but what about hickory, jerky, and tobacco? Native American languages gave us scores of words for things we frequently use—not to mention the many states, rivers, and towns that evolved from Native American names. Here are 11 words commonly used in English that were coined by Indigenous groups across the Americas.

1. OPOSSUM

The Native American name of North America’s resident marsupial comes from the Virginia Algonquian word opassum (alternately spelled aposoum), which means “white dog” or “white beast” in the Powhatan language. Skunk, coyote, raccoon, moose, woodchuck, and caribou are a few of the other animals that owe their names to Native American tribes.

2. SQUASH

When English settlers first arrived in North America, they used squash as a verb (meaning to crush something) and, more arcanely, to refer to an unripe pea pod. However, they were unfamiliar with the fruit we now know as squash, according to Merriam-Webster. The Narragansett tribe from present-day New England called it askútasquash, which was eventually shortened to squash in English.

3. CHOCOLATE

This delicious treat comes to us from nature, but we can thank Indigenous Mesoamericans for this Native American name. The word chocolate comes from Nahuatl, a language spoken by the Aztecs (many Indigenous people in Mexico speak dialects of Nahuatl today). The Aztecs would make a drink from ground cacao seeds called chikolatl.

4. AVOCADO

Sorry, avocado trivia lovers, but the story that this word originally meant testicle isn’t quite right. According to Nahuatl scholar Magnus Pharao Hansen, the Nahuatl name for the fruit, ahuacatl, was also slang for testicle, but only ever slang. The word ahuacatl chiefly described the fruit. It entered Spanish in the late 1600s as aguacate, and was eventually Anglicized as avocado.

5. GUACAMOLE

In a similar vein, guacamole stems from two Nahuatl words: ahuacatl (avocado) and molli (sauce). Mix them together and they make ahuacamolli. Molli, as fans of chicken mole enchiladas will know, was later spelled mole in Mexican Spanish. Tomato (tomatl), chili (chilli), and chipotle (chilli + poctli, meaning something smoked) are a few other food words that come to us from Nahuatl.

6. PONCHO

Indigenous peoples in central Chile who speak Araucanian languages dubbed their shawl-like “woolen fabric” a pontho. They were often worn by huasos, or cowboys, who lived in central and southern Chile. Nowadays, ponchos are commonplace throughout Latin America.

7. HURRICANE

The Maya believed in a “god of the storm,” and they called it Hunraken. This same word was picked up throughout Central America and the Caribbean to refer to an evil deity. Spanish explorers in the Caribbean changed the spelling to huracán and used it to describe the weather phenomenon, and it was finally introduced into English by the 16th century.

Mt. St. Helens behind the clouds.

Castilleja (The orange flowers above, commonly known as scarlet paintbrush or prairie-fire; not sure about the purple flowers.)

Kara Church

Pronouns: she/her/hers

Technical Editor, Advisory

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